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It’s time to say it: the Chiefs’ special teams need to be better

Kansas City’s greatest weakness this season has been in the third phase of the game.

Kansas City Chiefs v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Football will always be a team game — one that rewards commitment and execution from every player who sees the field. As the saying goes, you’re only as strong as your weakest link.

Right now, the Kansas City Chiefs have a very obvious weak link: their special teams — which have been anything but special this season.

Throughout Andy Reid’s time as head coach, the Chiefs have frequently had one of the best units in the NFL. They had an electric return game with players like De’Anthony Thomas and Tyreek Hill. Special teams coordinator Dave Toub could even get the most out of limited returners like Knile Davis and Byron Pringle.

But in 2022, the Chiefs special teams haven’t looked the same — mostly due to the construction of the roster and execution.

The issues with special teams have really been developing over the last few seasons. Back in 2019, the Chiefs had then-rookie Jack Fox (one of the best punters in the game) in training camp — but opted to stick with 37-year-old Dustin Colquitt.

The next season, the Chiefs moved on to rookie Tommy Townsend, who had two rough years to begin his career before stabilizing his performance. Once Tyreek Hill was removed as a returner to focus on the offense, the return game has been limited; the unit’s most recent kickoff and punt return touchdowns came in 2020.

We have also seen some puzzling decisions this season. Placing Skyy Moore back to field punts — after he had never done them in college — was an interesting choice. By the end of Week 3, he had already muffed two punts.

After Harrison Butker’s injury in Week 1 against the Arizona Cardinals, Kansas City held a “kick-off” to find his replacement. This competition led the Chiefs to Matt Ammendola — despite his career field goal percentage of 69.2%. To say the least, it was a confusing choice.

That decision was almost as confusing as running a fake field goal on fourth-and-11 against the Indianapolis Colts — with Townsend throwing the football.

Sunday’s 27-17 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars was just another showcase for the unit’s struggles. Butker missed another extra point, dropping his season rate to 88.2%. The Chiefs were caught off guard by an onside kick after a miscommunication about how to call the coin toss to start the game. There was a fumble while recovering a squib kick — and more adventures in fielding punts, with their third returner (Kadarius Toney) in as many weeks.

Kansas City had already lost a game on special teams alone — and if not for the greatness of quarterback Patrick Mahomes (and the Chiefs’ defense, which prevented the Jaguars from scoring after recovering their onside kick), Sunday’s game could have been another one.

Special teams has long proved to be an edge for the Chiefs — but this season, it’s proven to be a greater edge for the opponent.

To be fair, this could all be classified as the NFL version of first-world problems. There are about 30 teams in the NFL that would love for their biggest concern to be special teams. And to be clear, it’s not all on special teams coordinator Dave Toub. In Kansas City, he has earned the benefit of the doubt.

But there needs to be some level-headedness. The Chiefs need to change their approach.

The bottom line

The Chiefs have the NFL’s most valuable player: Mahomes. In Travis Kelce, they also have a Hall of Fame tight end — and a Hall of Fame play-caller in Andy Reid. Their offense is among the best in the league — and the defense appears to be improving week after week.

Kansas City just isn’t the kind of team that needs every little advantage to win a game (Remember: against Jacksonville, the Chiefs had a minus-3 turnover margin). The team needs to eliminate special-teams mistakes and let their stars take over.

Stop running the ball out of the end zone. Instead, kneel down. Give Mahomes the ball at the 25-yard line. Stop kicking the ball short to try to get a coverage stop on the return. Kick the ball through the end zone — and let Chris Jones rush the passer.

For a long time, Toub has had a lot of say in the construction of the roster. As one of the most accomplished special teams coordinators of all time, he’s earned that right. But because of the youth movement that was needed in 2022, Toub doesn’t have a lot of his guys on the roster; there are many young players in his unit.

The Chiefs need to stop acting as though Hill is still back there fielding punts and kicks. They need to stop acting like Butker is healthy by frequently asking him to make 45-yard yard field goals. Most of all, they need to remember what they are: a dominant offensive team.

Here’s the good news: all of this is in the control of the coaching staff; aside from Butker’s health, all of this can be corrected by coaching. There is also a clear upside to Toney as a punt returner — and Townsend is having his best season.

As long as slight adjustments are made to its approach, there is every reason to have faith in Kansas City’s special-teams unit.

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